Prokofieff wrote his Second Symphony in Paris, just after his marriage and the birth of his first son. It was commissioned by that great champion of 20th century composers, the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and is a thunderously colourful and abrasive score, composed in the full flood of the new ‘modernism’. Especially in the first movement, the music is as dissonant as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, as motorically driven as the ‘machine music’ of Honegger and Mossolov, and as garishly and brilliantly orchestrated as Prokofieff’s own Scythian Suite. At the same time, in the second movement, there are striking moments of calm and gentleness.
Formally and orchestrally, this symphony is unusual and original. There are only two movements. The first is a wild and shrieking full-orchestral toccata, beginning with a deafening scream of trumpets, oboes and horns, and continuing with a relentless clash and clatter suggesting factories, railway trains and even the booming of great guns. The second movement is quite different, a set of variations on a strange and haunting melody first heard on the oboe. Each variation grows longer and more elaborate until the sixth and last which is almost a complete movement in itself. After that the haunting oboe tune returns and, unexpectedly, the symphony ends quietly.
Perhaps because the modernist Prokofieff has been somewhat eclipsed by the more familiar lyrical Prokofieff, this symphony has never been frequently performed. This is a great pity, for though it is certainly a demanding play for the musicians, it can have an overwhelming effect on the audience.
Note by Gerard McBurney